When We Were Ambiguous
I’ve been trying to write something about the many incarnations of Will Oldham, the country songwriter, most beloved in cities and college towns, who has released albums under his own name and as Bonnie Prince Billy, Palace, and The Palace Brothers, and I’ve been stumped – because I realize that I don’t really know his music as well as I thought I did. I don’t have every album, I haven’t seen him in concert, and I’ve never really listened to his music with a writerly ear.
I’ve only loved it.
But a few weeks ago, when I sat down to write this, I felt like I should brush up and think about Oldham in an informed way. So I tried to listen to his records while considering various definitions of “sacred” and “profane.” I thought about the concept of a closed circle, the tradition of country music, the inherent religiosity of the South, the aesthetic of decay, the logic of ambiguity, etc., etc.
In the end, I had to scrap everything I wrote on the subject, because it all felt false. So instead, I’ll just tell you about college, while I listen to my favorite Will Oldham record, Lost Blues and Other Songs. I discovered Will Oldham in my senior year at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, which was the same year that a lot of other strange things happened.
I moved to Israel for eight months and came back a religion major. I kissed girls. I discovered that I was living in Appalachia. I visited snake-handling churches and bluegrass shacks on the back of Signal Mountain. My best friend was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and started wearing an eye patch. My boyfriend of four years and I split up, but kept living together because our apartment was really cheap. My friends began holding strip-poker and spin-the-bottle parties. People I knew smoked crack for the first time. People I knew joined Alcoholics Anonymous for the first time. I thought I was pregnant. My first friends got married. I taught Hebrew School. I was fired for teaching third-graders about Palestine. I was tested for AIDS, over and over. I ate meat for the first time in six years. I dove in dumpsters. I demonstrated at the Pentagon and got my hand broken by a cop. I filed a tort claim against the Secret Service for my broken hand. I worked in a country club. I drank too much wine-in-a-box. I didn’t graduate on time. And I listened to Palace Music/Palace Bothers/Will Oldham/ Bonnie Prince Billy.
We used to have these evenings we called Food Sessions. I don’t remember why they were called Food Sessions, or who came up with the name, but they were incredible. A Food Session was a party, in the dark, with instruments. And we defined “instrument” pretty loosely. A guitar was an instrument, but so was a plastic Playschool trumpet. And so was a glass of water and a fork, an ocarina, or a pair of wooden spoons.
Everyone would begin with their chosen instrument and a lot of booze. The lights would go out and we’d all play. The only rule was that nobody was allowed to play an instrument they’d ever played before. And so it would go for hours, darkness and noise and drinking. And after an hour or two, things would coalesce, and the noise would become melodic, harmonious, and we’d sing along. It was amazing. A song.
I couldn’t tell at the time – and I certainly don’t know now – whether the coalescing happened because our motley symphony actually got better as the night unfolded, or because we just got really stinking drunk and we thought we were coalescing. Both were probably true to varying degrees. But it was magical, and not in a hippy-trippy-drum-circle way. In an experimental, experiential, discovering-the-world-and-enjoying-the-inevitable-mistakes-way. We each sang different words. But each song sounded wonderful to the person singing it, who just happened to be at the very center of the universe.
Which brings me back to Will Oldham. There was a myth – and I believed it – that Will Oldham was classically trained, a talented musician on any instrument, but that he chose to play with his flawed, cracked, imperfect, country manner, calling out and screeching alongside musicians of varying skill-levels.
I was certain that if Will Oldham came to one of our Food Sessions, he’d be astounded by us and by our accidental methods. I felt like he was one of us, that he respected us, and that he knew us as well as we knew him. I loved that he sang about angels, the South, brittle things, ideas, birds, cakes and dark-haired women. I loved that there were fiddles in his music, and chimes and radio static. I loved that he always managed to counterpoint, to pair a religious image with something dirty or broken. He seemed to be doing something altogether different. He was intelligent, but not ironic. He was sincere, but never sappy. He seemed overcome as we were overcome, to the point of almost breaking, and to the beauty found at the almost-breaking-point.
My friend Tara and I used to argue all the time about his lyrics. We’d sit on the floor in her room, playing a Palace Brothers 45 over and over again on the turntable, screaming at each other about whether Will Oldham wanted to “fuck a mountain with a woman of value, ” or “fuck a mountain with a woman of the valley. ” We debated over whether “the last one would be there”¦ hitching up her skirts in a leatherbacked chair, ” or “the last one would be there”¦ hitching up her skirts in a ladderback chair.”
In truth, these lyric discrepancies didn’t matter at all, and so we never bothered to check a lyric sheet, because it was the conversation, the debate, that we loved. We worshipped the ambiguity of his style, his voice, and also his wide-ranging themes, his devils and angels, his fuck and his soul, his darkness and light. We wanted that breadth in our own lives, because we saw that breadth as a widening of the world. This ambiguity of Will Oldham, which allowed us a huge range of legitimate guesses at his befuddling lyrics, also offered us a huge range of legitimate emotions and ideas. We’d guess and guess and guess. And we’d always get something out of it.
“(End of) Traveling” was always my very favorite song, and I’m listening to it right now as I type, knowing that Tara and I never puzzled out the words correctly. But there’s a line in it that I especially loved, and I love it today, because it sounds to me exactly the way it sounded when I was 22.
“Opening these eyes has taught me prayers that I should raise, let you crash, today.”
I’m sure that this is wrong, that these particular words say something else entirely. But, honestly, I don’t know what the right words are, and the sentence I hear is so deeply embedded that I can’t even make out the individual consonants or vowels.
These words meant the world to me. They helped me to identify the meaning of tolerance, the function of debate, the ability of God to position himself so that people could learn to destroy him. I came to be a differently religious person in that year, and this song was the soundtrack to that exploration.
I don’t know what Will Oldham meant the words to be, and I remember that Tara could not, no matter how I argued, hear the word “prayers” in that song. But I can’t imagine what Will Oldham might have intended that could possibly have meant more for me.
Will Oldham didn’t write “(End of) Traveling” alone. We both wrote it, he and I. It’s what we made together.
I don’t know if he knows that the ambiguity of his songs allows for so much room to move, but he should. I hope he means his music to work that way. Certainly, it’s the strength of the work that these songs can support interpretation. It shows the range of what the songs might legitimately be saying, because they might be fuck or fall or flower or friend or fancy or feel or farm. All of those things are in his music, and so nothing is outside the realm of possibility. Whatever you hear in his lyrics is true.
Laurel Snyder is a contributing editor to KtB, the editor of Half/Life: Jew-ish Tales from Interfaith Homes, and the author of a poetry collection, The Myth of the Simple Machines. She’s also written several books for children, including the forthcoming title, Baxter, the Pig Who Wanted to Be Kosher. She lives online at LaurelSnyder.com.